Heather Petersons listened to her 5-year-old daughter, Camille, and worried. “She would cough and cough and cough and then she would be gasping to take a breath,” Petersons recalled. “Her eyes would be watering from coughing. The coughing wiped her out.” But April 2012 was a busy time for the Milwaukee family, and it was probably just a bad cold. Camille kept going to her kindergarten class at St. Dominic Catholic School. The family held an adoption party for her new younger sister and invited about 20 people. All the while, Camille could not shake her cough.
It got so bad Petersons videotaped her daughter before heading to the family doctor, just in case the child stopped coughing the moment they entered the exam room. The doctor took a swab for testing and called back a few hours later. Camille had pertussis, whooping cough. She had caught the disease even though she’d been vaccinated against it. The whole family had to go on antibiotics. So did all the guests from the adoption party, although ultimately none came down with the illness. “We felt horrible that we’d (possibly) infected all of these people without knowing because we thought she had a bad cold,” Petersons said. “I remember thinking whooping cough was one of those old-school things that nobody got anymore.”
Pertussis, known for an explosive cough so violent it can break a person’s rib or cause the person to vomit or pass out, had appeared to be on the way out in this country in 1976, the disease’s low ebb. There were just 1,010 cases — far below the 100,000 typical in the 1940s. The disease was vanishing under the assault of childhood vaccinations. Not anymore. The year Camille got pertussis, Wisconsin alone recorded 6,462 cases. The national total was 48,277.
Experts and research point to a complex confluence of factors that may have caused the surge in cases, including: a safer but weakened vaccine; more surveillance, especially in adults; genetic changes to the bacterium; and a proliferation of wary parents and anti-vaccine websites. And then there is the disease itself, with its remarkable capacity to spread. Each case of Ebola is estimated to generate 1.5 to 2 more cases; each smallpox case, 6 to 7 more. A single case of whooping cough, however, generates anywhere from 12 to 17 more. And every three to five years, there is a major outbreak and the numbers spike. More